Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5713
In a period of only nine years, Henry Fielding wrote and staged more than twenty plays. Such a sustained outburst recalls the careers of Elizabethan dramatists Thomas Dekker and John Fletcher, who in the early 1600’s turned out three or four scripts a year to feed London’s voracious appetite for new plays. The decade of the 1730’s was another theatrically hungry period. Five theaters competed for reputation, audience, and income; their managers vied for the best authors, plays, and actors. The pressure of competition added farces, burlesques, operas, pantomime, and even puppet shows to the repertory of drama by standard playwrights. In the struggle to keep up and get ahead, authors and companies freely borrowed material from the French and Italian theaters and readily used singers, dancers, jugglers, and anything else that attracted customers. Innovative theater often brought quick profits, but it challenged many dramatic conventions (especially notions of genre) and often sacrificed dramatic quality to gain immediate impact.
Though Fielding’s plays are diverse in method and form, they are alike in motivation. Fielding used the stage as early eighteenth century writers used every literary genre: as a forum for the discussion of current events. With journalistic promptness and intensity, Fielding (like other dramatists of the 1730’s) built plays around current events in London: examples of private morality and immorality, political issues and personalities, and trends in the theater. Like a journalist, Fielding wrote rapidly. If a play succeeded, it was imitated or redone in a bigger and better version. If a play failed, it was pulled from the stage and replaced. Fielding was adept at writing quickly as well as ingeniously, whether reviving old material or concocting new combinations of dramatic staples. These “unshaped monsters of a wanton brain” could never bring Fielding the literary fame that successful five-act comedies would have brought, but several of them are masterpieces of the 1730’s, one of the liveliest and most experimental eras of English theater.
A review of Fielding’s plays shows that he attempted to work in one traditional dramatic style, the comedy of manners, but, more important, to cater to the popular taste for new dramatic entertainments. Fielding first tried his hand at five-act comedies in the style of William Congreve and Sir John Vanbrugh. When he met limited success with this form, Fielding turned to farce, one-and two-act plays designed as afterpieces to the main performance. These short plays, at which Fielding proved adept, emphasized broad characterization, limited plots, and busy stage action. If Fielding had worked only in these two styles, however, his modern reputation as a dramatist would be negligible. The theatrical rivalry of his era led Fielding to experiment with dramatic form and stage technique. He experimented both to find innovations that would please audiences and to poke fun at rival playwrights. His experimental dramas (which he once called the “unshaped monsters of a wanton brain”) defy categorization because they mix freely and imaginatively elements of manners comedy, farce, burlesque, and ballad opera. Fielding’s plays represent different levels of achievement. Skillful as he could be at following convention or manipulating it, Fielding often pursued thematic concerns at the expense of form. His themes are as numerous as the plays themselves: the moral state of London society, the political health of the nation under the administration of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, the condition of modern marriage, and the quality of contemporary theater.
The emphasis on theme made Fielding only a mediocre practitioner of the five-act comedy. His Congrevian comedies were progressively ill-received by audiences, and modern scholarship has devoted attention to them primarily because of Fielding’s reputation in other genres. The thematic emphasis was more congenial in farce, where conventions were less firm, but at the same time, the form worked against any substantial thematic exploration or revelation. Fielding’s “unshaped monsters,” plays in which form is shaped almost organically as a means of expressing theme, are his major achievement. They are amusing, imaginative, and energetic. Even though two centuries have dulled some of the pointed satire, they are a delight to read. In the 1730’s these experimental plays, mingling dramatic elements in unexpected ways for irreverent purposes, sometimes pleased and sometimes puzzled. Modern readers—accustomed to W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan operettas, Marx Brothers films, and Monty Python skits—can easily visualize these works in performance. A term Fielding used for one of this group, “dramatic satire,” might serve for all of them.
Tracing the sequence of Fielding’s five-act comedies, one sees clearly how the conventions of the genre and Fielding’s interests grew steadily. The Congrevian comedy of manners followed patterns that had codified during four decades of Restoration theater. The staple plot presents a witty hero in pursuit of love and fortune through fashionable London society. Love begins as a hunt for pleasure—like a fox hunt, a chase of elaborate ceremony—with the hunter well equipped by a solid inheritance. The hero, a skeptic about the virtues of marriage, enjoys the hunt until he meets a woman whose wit and intelligence match his own. Now the hero’s pursuit changes: Love’s quality matters more to him than variety, and his wealth enables him to avoid mindless conformity to society’s customs. The lovers display their attractive characters and mutual affection in brilliant dialogue, and they overcome whatever obstacles arise: rival lovers, disagreeable guardians, legal complexities. By manipulating other characters, the lovers bring their courtship to a successful conclusion which sees deserving heads, hearts, and fortunes united. Although the dramatist might make, in the course of things, satiric points about contemporary values and attitudes, Congrevian comedy emphasizes the mutual attraction of the young lovers. John Loftis has called this celebration of attraction, as it matures from a physical desire to incorporate intellectual parity, the “gaiety of sex.” Congrevian comedy entertains and improves by championing the pursuit of love.
Love in Several Masques
Fielding’s first two comedies, Love in Several Masques and The Temple Beau, remain faithful to the conventions and emphases of the type. In the first play, Merital seeks to win Helena, whose guardians, an aunt and uncle, wish to marry her to the foolish man-about-town, Apish. The aunt, Lady Trap, is an obstacle in another sense: She is trying to seduce Merital. The lovers elope after Merital pretends friendship with Apish to gain access to Helena. In the second play, Veromil, though defrauded of his inheritance by a rascally brother, pursues Bellaria because he loves her. His rival is a high-living rake and supposed law student, Henry Wilding, who courts Bellaria as a means of recouping his wasted fortune. The timely intervention of an old family servant exposes the fraud and secures social recognition for Veromil’s marriage to Bellaria. Although the plays attack the contemporary feeling that money and concern for the family name are more important than love, their satire does not obscure the zesty pursuit of love.
This is not the case, however, in Fielding’s other five-act comedies. Perhaps because comedy is a traditional vehicle for lashing vice and exposing folly, Fielding increasingly gave precedence to theme over conventions of character and plot. A moralist, like many eighteenth century authors, he could not help paying more attention to political, professional, and social corruption than he did to literary traditions. Though this emphasis weakened the public appeal of his five-act plays, it shows his thinking and underlies his growing sense of dramatic freedom.
Rape upon Rape
Rape upon Rape, which claims to present contemporary life as any observer could remark it, is more a thesis play than a comedy. The title (which offended Fielding’s contemporaries and had to be changed) both describes the literal action and also becomes a symbolic indictment of the English judicial system. Hilaret’s plans to elope with Captain Constant are upset when she is accosted by the rakish Ramble. Her cry of “rape” causes Ramble to be apprehended, but he then charges her with swearing a false accusation. Both are hauled before Justice Squeezum, who solicits bribes from men and women alike: money from the former and sex from the latter. Managing to escape Squeezum’s solicitations, Hilaret learns that Constant has been carried to the same court on a false rape charge. Although Hilaret and Constant are true lovers, who proceed to expose Squeezum’s corruption and manage to marry, little attention is paid to celebrating their mutual attraction. The play offers some amusing moments, but there is, not surprisingly, little gaiety in the themes of pandering, attempted rape, and injustice.
The Modern Husband and The Universal Gallant
Fielding’s subsequent five-act comedies move even further from the model. There are courting lovers in The Modern Husband, but they are not the central couple; there are no unmarried lovers in The Universal Gallant, nor are the married people especially attractive people in either play. The main action of The Modern Husband is a strong indictment of aristocratic power and middle-class groveling: Lord Richly awards power and prestige to men who prostitute their wives to him and then uses those couples to seduce others. The play shows Richly attempting to use Mr. and Mrs. Modern to bring Mr. and Mrs. Bellamant within his circle. Fortunately, the Bellamants are faithful to each other and clever enough to thwart Richly’s design. The Universal Gallant contrasts the overly suspicious Sir Simon Raffler, whose wife is faithful, with the trusting Colonel Raffler, whose wife is regularly unfaithful. Entangled with these couples are Captain Spark, who boasts (without justification) of numerous conquests, and the beau Mondish, who goes quietly about several amours. Sex abounds in both plays, but, again, little of it is lighthearted. The Bellamants and the Simon Rafflers find only distress in love; the couples endure, but with little sense of celebration.
Fielding found farce a better medium than comedy for exaggerated characterization and pointed satire. Eighteenth century farce did not have as many conventions as manners comedy, but its assumptions were well understood. In the prologue to The Lottery, Fielding comments on two important differences between the types. First, while “Comedy delights to punish the fool,/ Farce challenges the vulgar as her prize”; that is, the characters satirized in farce are more mean-spirited than self-deluded (and probably of a low social class). Second, farce identifies and attacks its targets by a “magnifying right/ To raise the object still larger to the sight”; that is, it allows exaggeration, hyperbole, and caricature. Formally, farce differs from comedy by dispensing with subplot, speeding up the pace, and emphasizing humor rather than wit in dialogue.
The Lottery is a good example of the latitude that farce gave Fielding’s interests. The play exposes the foolishness of those who literally mortgage their futures to a one-in-ten-thousand chance and deplores the corruption of those who capitalize on foolish hopes. Mr. Stocks, who sells lottery tickets, knows “what an abundance of rich men will one month reduce to their former poverty.” The brief plot follows the rocky love affair of Mr. Stock’s younger brother Jack, who has no inheritance and whose beloved puts all their hopes for a happy married life on winning a ten-thousand-pound first prize. Fortunately, the lovers’ natural affection survives the inevitable disappointment when their ticket does not win.
Eurydice shows a more imaginative use of farce’s freewheeling style. The play depicts the visit of Orpheus to the Underworld in pursuit of his wife, Eurydice. Orpheus, singing ballad opera instead of strumming the lyre, charms Pluto, god of the Underworld, into granting permission for Eurydice to return to earth. Eurydice, however, is reluctant to return to modern London, where married love is accorded little respect. If Orpheus is like other modern husbands, he will soon lose interest in her. She wonders if she is not better off in a kingdom where she is free to govern herself. After much singing about the advantages and disadvantages of either choice, Eurydice finally decides to stay, and Orpheus departs alone, warning other husbands to appreciate their wives while they have them. Eurydice was not well received by its first audience, which took an unexpected dislike to one character, the ghost of an army beau. This reception led Fielding to write a sequel, Eurydice Hiss’d, about an author whose play, though imperfect, is unjustly scorned by theatergoers.
The Lottery and Eurydice are typical English farces, with a certain zaniness that results from making the plot fit the satiric theme. There was another tradition of farce, however, that Fielding explored in the 1730’s. This other tradition was French; its major practitioner was Molière. Its satire is general (the incompetence of doctors, the social vanity of the nouveau riche), its structure built on the traditional devices of fast-paced action, intrigue, and disguise rather than on ludicrous situations. One might call it the “well-made farce”: The plot leaves no loose ends. Such plays demand especially skillful actors; Fielding, who was always aware of how much a play’s success depended on its cast, twice adapted material from the French to match the talent of a specific actress—in The Intriguing Chambermaid and The Mock Doctor. Taking stock situations such as the clever servant who outwits a master and the couple for whom marital life and marital strife are synonymous, these farces move briskly to unfold, develop, and tie together the action. The Intriguing Chambermaid and The Mock Doctor, both successful pieces, show that Fielding could adapt as well as be original in the art of farce.
Fielding, like many of his contemporaries, spoke slightingly of farce because it was without classical precedent and therefore less literary: “The stage . . . was not for low farce designed/ But to divert, instruct, and mend mankind” through comedy. Fielding moved progressively away from comedy, however, as his own interests and theatrical developments in the 1730’s did more to shape his drama than did the desire to succeed as a regular dramatist. Fielding found two vehicles, ballad opera and burlesque, ideal for presenting satire in drama. Ballad opera combined farce, music, and ingenious paralleling; it originated with John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr. 1728), a tale of London’s underworld in which thieves and prostitutes sing arias (set to native English tunes) about their lives, which show embarrassing similarities to those of the rich and powerful. Burlesque exaggerated theatrical conventions in order to poke fun at them and to indict a public taste for such inferior entertainment. (Sometimes, however, “inferior” meant only “what was currently successful at a rival theater.”)
Fielding never wrote pure burlesque or ballad opera, preferring to draw on these forms for devices which, when mixed with elements of comedy and farce, could produce ingenious and distinctive plays. As suggested earlier, Fielding’s alternative title for Pasquin, which was A Dramatic Satire on the Times, may be the most useful way of describing these plays. “Satire” comes from the Latin satura, which means a medley; Fielding’s dramatic satires are indeed medleys for the stage, collections of parts and techniques and themes which the critical purist may find offensive but which the responsive reader often finds delightful. Fielding, never able to give up hope of becoming famous for his five-act comedies, often apologized for the dramatic satires, calling them products of “his unskilled muse,” because they pleased the fancy more than the judgment. Those who read the dramatic satires today could hardly disagree more. Written to “combat the follies of the town,” these plays do suffer somewhat because some contemporary allusions are lost, but Fielding is one of the great detectors of human folly, and the truth of his observations is not limited to any time, any place, or any social class.
The Tragedy of Tragedies
Four plays—The Tragedy of Tragedies, The Author’s Farce, Pasquin, and The Historical Register for the Year 1736—are Fielding’s masterpieces in dramatic satire. They demonstrate his inventiveness, his versatility, his wit, and his thematic concerns. The Tragedy of Tragedies (a three-act version of the two-act afterpiece Tom Thumb) is a fantastic burlesque of heroic tragedy. The court of King Arthur and Queen Dollalolla is attacked by a race of warriors led by the giantess Glumdalca. The invaders are defeated by Arthur’s champion, Tom Thumb, a knight as big as the digit whose name he bears. In reward, Tom is allowed to marry the Princess Huncamunca, but the proposed union causes much jealousy. Lord Grizzle, who loves Huncamunca, refuses to see her wed to one “fitter for [her] pocket than [her] bed.” The queen and Glumdalca despair because they both love Tom. The giantess must forsake Tom because of their physical difference, and the queen’s marriage vows intrude, although Dollalolla finds that in Cupid’s scale, “Tom Thumb is heavier than my Virtue.”
While Tom celebrates his engagement by murdering two bailiffs who arrest his courtier friends for debt, Grizzle attempts to woo Huncamunca. He succeeds quickly, but only because the princess is ready to marry either man—or any man. Grizzle vows to kill Tom by leading a rebellion. Meanwhile, King Arthur is visited by a ghost who prophesies Tom’s death. When the loyal army confronts the rebels, Grizzle kills Glumdalca, but Tom slays Grizzle. The celebration at court is spoiled, however, when news comes that on meeting the victors in their march home, “a Cow, of larger size than usual/ . . . in a Moment swallowed up Tom Thumb.”
As farce, The Tragedy of Tragedies is humorous, but as burlesque it is brilliant. As he exaggerates tragic conventions, Fielding also mocks their language by mimicking it. Inflated rhetoric, overblown metaphor, inappropriate diction, and ironic simile provide an aural equivalent of the visual farce. The king inquires thus about Dollalolla’s health: “What wrinkled Sorrow,/ Hangs, sits, lies, frowns upon thy knitted brow?” Huncamunca describes pining for Tom: “For him I’ve sighed, I’ve wept, I’ve gnawed my Sheets.” The parson prays for the fruitfulness of Tom’s marriage: “So when the Cheshire Cheese a Maggot breeds,/ . . . By thousands, and ten thousands they increase,/ Till one continued Maggot fills the rotten Cheese.” Glumdalca laments the emotional storm raised in her by the sight of Tom: “I’m all within a Hurricane, as if/ The World’s four winds were pent within my Carcass.” A giantess filled with one wind to expel is awesome; the notion of four winds pent within her is catastrophic.
The printed text of the play adds another target to the burlesque: It is a mock scholarly edition with critical apparatus. Fielding names his editor H. Scriblerus Secundus in the tradition of Martinus Scriblerus, whom Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift had created to satirize pedantic scholarship. In a preface filled with Latin tags and authoritative references, Scriblerus argues that The Tragedy of Tragedies, conforming perfectly to classical precedent, is renowned throughout Europe. The footnotes increase the fun. Fielding had borrowed lines from actual plays (sometimes crucially altered, sometimes not) for his burlesque; the footnotes invert the procedure by demonstrating that The Tragedy of Tragedies was actually written in Elizabethan times and has itself been borrowed from and pillaged by all subsequent dramatists.
The Author’s Farce
The Author’s Farce also ridicules, in a somewhat freer form than The Tragedy of Tragedies, theatrical tastes of the day. It tells of a struggling playwright named Luckless who is having great difficulty getting his piece performed or published. Luckless is sure the work is just the thing to please contemporary audiences: a puppet show, called The Pleasures of the Town, which uses live actors. The inversion is typically Fielding; he teases the current rage for puppet actors performing cut-down standard plays by positing live actors performing Punch-and-Joan (as Judy was universally known then) antics.
The play is not pure burlesque but a mixture of comic traditions. Act 1 is traditional manners comedy. It shows Luckless unable to pay his rent because he is unable to sell his play. Witty though impoverished, Luckless fends off the financial and amorous demands of his landlady, Mrs. Moneywood, because he is really in love with her daughter, Harriot. Luckless’s friend Witmore aids him in his battles against dunning creditors and stingy booksellers. When Witmore pays off the back rent, the ingenious Luckless dupes Moneywood into turning the cash over to him. When the publisher Bookweight refuses Luckless an advance, Bookweight is abused and thrown out of the apartment. At least Luckless gains some emotional satisfaction, and he possesses the pluck, the hauteur, and the quick-wittedness of the Congrevian hero.
Act 2 is closer to farce. Ten rapid scenes show Luckless trying to get his puppet show staged immediately. Two theater managers (representing Colley Cibber and Robert Wilks of Drury Lane) turn the play down because the author has no “interest”—that is, no standing within the ruling theatrical clique. Taking his case directly to other managers and to the actors, Luckless arranges for a performance that very night. Bookweight, discovered at his shop overseeing instant dedications and rapid translations written by his stable of hacks, now willingly listens to Luckless because he has “interest.” A crier advertises the performance, “in which will be shown the whole Court of Dullness with abundance of singing and dancing and several other entertainments . . . to be performed by living figures, some of them six foot high.”
The third act, the actual performance of Luckless’s play, combines farce and burlesque. The Pleasures of the Town opens with a scene of the archetypal feuding couple, Punch and Joan; the arguing, singing, and dancing please popular taste but in no way relate to what follows. The next scene introduces a deceased poet on his way to the Goddess of Nonsense’s Underworld court; the poet meets several other travelers fresh from London who are on the same route. There is Don Tragedio, who died after one performance; Sir Farcical Comic, who was hissed to death; Mr. Pantomime, whose neck the audience wrung; and Madam Novel, who went unread. Preeminent among these victims of shifting audience taste is Don Opera, who was so overwhelmed with the audience’s approbation and his own dying aria that he swooned to death. Don Opera has been chosen as the fittest spouse for the Goddess of Nonsense. After an irrelevant scene presenting a card game among four shrieking harridans, the stage is set for the wedding. At this moment, The Pleasures of the Town turns into a ballad opera and emotional outbursts are rendered in song. There is plenty of passionate carrying-on: Nonsense discovers that Opera is already wed to Novel, and Opera protests that death has freed him from his vows. Unconvinced, Nonsense invites wooing from Farcical, Pantomime, and the others. Spurned, Opera proclaims his undying affection for Novel.
This dramatic moment is interrupted by Parson Murdertext, who has brought Constable to arrest Luckless for staging a sacrilegious play. The characters in the puppet show argue with Murdertext and Constable, thus blurring the line between play and play-within-the-play. That line grows even fainter as Harriot and Witmore enter with the ambassador from the Javanese kingdom of Bantom. The newcomer proclaims Luckless as the long-lost heir to Bantom’s throne. A messenger enters to announce that the old Javanese king has just died, and Luckless is immediately proclaimed Henry I of Bantom. He appoints all the characters (not the actors) in the puppet-show to important government posts. Punch returns to identify himself as Harriot’s lost brother, and Moneywood proclaims herself the impoverished Queen of Brentford. The play concludes with a dance.
Without a well-annotated text, modern readers will miss many of the in-jokes, yet none will miss Fielding’s general indictment of the foolishness that passes as entertainment. Sudden reversals of fortune, reliance on spectacle in place of development, and heavy use of coincidence are all marks of amateurishness or incompetence that mar drama, whether their victim is an eighteenth century play, a Hollywood movie, or a television sitcom.
Pasquin, a dramatic satire that shows Fielding’s seemingly limitless inventiveness, follows one of the few traditions for a satiric play: a rehearsal of another play. George Villiers’s The Rehearsal (pr. 1671, pb. 1672), which mocked the heroic plays of John Dryden and Robert Howard, originated the form, which became standard in the self-conscious theater of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Fielding’s twist on the formula is to include two rehearsals—one of a comedy and one of a tragedy—in the same play. For two and a half acts, Pasquin shows Trapwit leading the actors through a comedy about how to win an election; for another two and a half acts, Pasquin presents Fustian taking the cast through his tragedy on the death of Queen Commonsense.
There is much comment and satire in Pasquin on now-familiar theatrical topics: the plight of actors and actresses, the looming specter of debtor’s prison for authors and performers, hasty production of plays, scenes written by formula, reliance in dialogue on bombast and innuendo (Trapwit, for example, protests that “except about a dozen, or a score, or so, there is not an impure joke” in his comedy), and production opportunity allowed only to already-successful authors. Fielding’s main target in Pasquin, however, is not the theater; his subjects are political and intellectual. Pasquin has more in common with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Pope’s The Dunciad (1728-1743) than it does with other plays of the period. Trapwit’s comedy is a merciless exposure of election campaigning, and Fustian’s tragedy is an indictment of three professions: law, medicine, and religion. The play’s title suggests the wide-ranging assault: Pasquin was the name of a Roman statue that was annually festooned with satiric epigrams and verses.
Like Swift, Fielding shows that people get the politicians they deserve. Trapwit’s comedy observes the conduct of a contemporary election. Lord Place and Colonel Promise, the court’s candidates (representing the Whig party of Sir Robert Walpole), vie for seats in Parliament with Sir Henry Foxchase and Squire Tankard, the country candidates (representing the Tory party). As the Mayor and aldermen sit in a tavern discussing the election, Place and Promise arrive and begin campaigning; they simply bribe each voter. In contrast to this method, which Trapwit calls “direct bribing,” Foxchase and Tankard engage in indirect bribing: They buy meat and drink freely for the tavern crowd, patronize the merchants with prodigious orders for silks and clothing, and lament the corruption of courtiers who openly buy votes. The Mayor and aldermen rally for a moment to the newcomers and their slogan of “Liberty, property, and no excise.”
Meanwhile, Place and Promise have been active among the ladies of the town, filling their ears with stories about the masquerades and fashionable gowns that could be theirs if the Court candidates win. Mrs. Mayoress and Miss Mayoress conclude that the lord and the colonel are “the finest men . . . the prettiest men . . . the sweetest men” and that the Mayor must vote for them. Miss Mayoress also persuades Miss Stitch, by the gift of a fan, to seek her beau’s vote for the Court. The ladies carry the day with the Mayor, and when Foxchase and Tankard win the election, the Mayor is much chagrined that he has supported the losing party. Unable to give up her dreams of Court preferment, Mrs. Mayoress convinces her husband to certify that the losers are really the victors. As she announces this startling development to the surprised courtiers, she encourages them, “when we have returned you so [that is, duly elected] it will be your fault if you don’t prove yourself so.” Mrs. Mayoress refers to the wonderful knack of eighteenth century incumbents, especially Walpole’s supporters, for keeping their seats by parliamentary maneuvering—regardless of an election’s outcome.
Fustian’s play, more allegorical than Trapwit’s, is set at the court of Queen Commonsense in the days when she ruled England. Three of her chief ministers—Law, Physic, and Firebrand (who stands for religion)—are unhappy because the reign of logic and reason in the land has diminished their power. For example, when two men suing each other over property lose it to their own lawyers, the queen is ready to reform the legal system, but Law sees only a decline in his authority and income. When news comes that Queen Ignorance, with an army of “singers, fiddlers, tumblers, and rope-dancers,” has invaded the island, the disgruntled courtiers threaten to join the rebels unless Commonsense yields them more power. Nevertheless, the queen bravely contends:
Religion, law, and physic were designedBy Heaven, the greatest blessings of mankind;But priests and lawyers and physicians madeThese general goods to each a private trade;With each they rob, with each they fill their purses,And turn our benefits into our curses.
Commonsense’s refusal to surrender brings on a battle. Gradually, her followers are slain until only a poet remains. His support of Commonsense has been so weak of late that he readily goes over to the enemy. Firebrand stabs Commonsense, and the reign of Ignorance is established. Only the ghost of Commonsense remains to harass Ignorance’s minions on occasion. The play ends, like Pope’s The Dunciad, with universal darkness covering just about all.
In neither The Author’s Farce nor Pasquin is Fielding’s satire subtle. No characters are fully realized, plots jump as need be, and the dialogue has more sarcasm than wit. Fielding’s ingenuity is in the juxtaposition of diverse and eclectic elements; the plays please through surprise and bluntness.
The Historical Register for the Year 1736
The Historical Register for the Year 1736 is less imaginative in its theatrical technique but more daring in its political attack. It, too, is cast as a rehearsal, this time of the playwright Medley’s work about the previous year’s events on the island kingdom of Corsica (which is obviously a symbol of Walpolian England). Medley’s play alternates comments on the theater and on the nation because “There is a ministry in the latter as well as the former, and I believe as weak a ministry as any poor kingdom could boast of.” In linking the two worlds of the prime minister and the theater manager, Medley observes that “though the public damn both, yet while they [the ministers] receive their pay, they laugh at the public behind the scenes.” Through Medley’s play, Fielding takes the audience behind the scenes.
Act 1 begins by assembling some observers of the rehearsal and showing what kind of reception Medley might expect. Medley and the actors, happy merely to have a script to perform and a stage to use, convene. The critic Sourwit joins them, immediately damning whatever he sees. Lord Dapper looks on, so weak-brained that the most obvious satire must be explained to him. As the rehearsal commences, Medley reads a prologue, an ode to the New Year (with immortal lines such as “This is a day in days of yore/Our fathers never saw before”), which burlesques the vapid verse of the poet laureate and theater manager Colley Cibber. The first scene displays a cabal of politicians who respond to financial crisis by voting another tax. Finding everything already taxed, one politico proposes a tax on learning, but another counters, “I think we had better lay it on Ignorance,” which “will take in most of the great fortunes in the Kingdom.” Lord Dapper is present proof that the speaker is right. Fielding manages to abuse both politicians and, through them, the masters they serve.
Act 2 continues the assault with an opening scene in which fashionable ladies (formula comedies always open the second act with fashionable ladies) adore the latest opera singer, whose performances currently pack the theaters. They display their enthusiasm by carrying his “babies” (little wax dolls in his image), certainly an ironic tribute to a castrato. Because these dolls are more valuable than lapdogs or spouses, one lady protests, “If my husband was to make any objection to my having ’em, I’d run away from him and take the dear babies with me.” In the next scene, the women attend an auction (the current faddish pastime), where the satire turns political. Up for sale are items such as a cloth remnant of political honesty, a piece of patriotism big enough to show off but too small to hold attention, a few grains of modesty, and an unopened bottle of courage; the buyers disparage the goods. Fielding’s comment is twofold: There is only enough virtue in political society to give the illusion of honesty, and even that little claims no great market. The act ends with the entrance of the madman Pistol, who claims the title of Prime Minister Theatrical. When a mob hisses, he takes the sound as a sign of approbation. Pistol is a caricature of Theophilus Cibber, who, like his father, Colley, aspired to this title by hearing applause in a round of catcalls.
The third act dramatizes Medley’s thesis that in the contemporary world “a man of parts, learning, and virtue is fit for no employment whatever . . . that honesty is the only sort of folly for which a man ought to be utterly neglected and condemned.” The theatrical and political implications of this view are worked out as a modern-day Apollo casts the players for a performance of William Shakespeare’s King John (pr., c. 1596-1597) with little regard for their competency. Like the theater managers of The Author’s Farce, the god makes his decisions on the basis of “interest,” the auditioner’s relationship to someone in power. The consequences of such thinking are dramatized as Pistol becomes Prime Minister Theatrical by usurping his father and as Quidam, the model of a modern politician, bilks five citizens of the little money with which he had bribed them at election time. Quidam’s fraud is accomplished through a pantomime dance that demonstrates that politics is nothing but theater; Pistol’s accession shows how political theater is. The dance concludes the play, yet it is not a proper dramatic ending, simply one that caters to the people’s taste. If the actors laugh while they dance, the target of their laughter is clear.